An interview with David Harrington Watt

© Patrick Montero/Haverford College.

You’ve been recently named the Douglas and Dorothy Steere Professor of Quaker Studies at Haverford College. Beyond your usual teaching in the religion department, what does that entail?

At Haverford, I’m a professor in Independent College Programs and a professor of Quaker Studies. Most of the courses I teach each year will be on Quakerism. This year, for instance, I’m teaching a course titled Taking Religion Seriously: Quakerism as a Test Case and another class called Reinventing Quakerism, which focuses on the life and thought of Rufus Jones.

I’m interested in what sorts of responses you’ve gotten from students about these courses.

Students seem to take a lot of satisfaction from working with the primary sources that Haverford College has collected. (Haverford has one of the finest Quaker collections in the world.) Students also seem to enjoy learning more about specific Quaker congregations. In the Taking Religion Seriously course I taught last fall, we visited a congregation in Philadelphia called Iglesia Evangélica Amigos Philadelphia. Most of the people who worship there are of Guatemalan descent, and they’d be far more likely to describe themselves as evangelicals than as liberals. The service we attended at Iglesia Evangélica Amigos Philadelphia lasted three hours, and very little of the service was devoted to silence. Participating in the service reminded us of the heterogeneity of contemporary Friends.

I think that lots of Haverford students will enjoy learning more about Evangelical Friends and about about the history of Friends in Latin America and Africa, as well as about the history of Friends in the United States. I hope that the courses I teach at Haverford will help students gain a deeper understanding of how much Quakerism varies from place to place and from time to time.

Yes, that’s fascinating. So what do you see as the place of a Quaker in the academy? How do you work those two things together, especially both in teaching and in your research?

The kind of scholarly conversations that have been most important to me are connected to the field of religious studies. (They’re the kind of conversations that take place at the American Academy of Religion and in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.) Like lots of other people who work in religious studies, I try to draw a clear line between being religious and studying religion. Trying to live out my Quaker faith is one of the things that has made me who I am. But to me, that’s a somewhat separate matter from the work I do as a scholar who studies the Quaker religion. When scholars are studying Quakerism, the rules we follow are not any different from the rules we follow when we are studying any other social, cultural, or political phenomenon.

When people like me are studying Quakerism, we’re usually working with texts. That’s great, but we need to remind ourselves that many of the most interesting things about a religious community can get screened out before they are written down. For example, reading the minutes seldom tells us everything we would like to know about what happened at a specific business meeting that took place in the twentieth century. Similarly, reading texts that describe the Quaker meetings for worship that were held in the 1650s certainly doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know about those meetings. We know that in the early days some Quakers really did quake while worshiping God. But what else went on? Were there other bodily manifestations? If so, what were they? How often did they occur? It is not easy for those who are alive today to recapture what it was actually like to participate in meetings for worship in the earliest period of Quaker history.

Yes. And just even being a person in the 1650s was very different from being a person today.

That’s a very good point. I think that contemporary Quakers often underestimate the distance that separates us from seventeenth-century Friends.

Your latest book, Antifundamentalism in Modern America, came out last year. What projects are you working on now?

Together with my colleague James Krippner, I’m studying the life of Henry Cadbury. Cadbury was a great New Testament scholar and a brilliant student of Quaker history. He was also a peace activist. When American Friends Service Committee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was Cadbury who went to Oslo to accept the award on the committee’s behalf. Cadbury was kind, but he was also plain spoken. He criticized militarism in such strong terms that he was forced to resign from the faculty of Haverford College. (Jim and I wrote an article on Cadbury’s departure from Haverford for the April 2017 issue of Friends Journal.)

Jim and I have recently signed a contract to write a monograph about Cadbury for the new Brill series in Quaker Studies. We hope to analyze Cadbury’s ideas and actions in a way that sheds new light on the nature of twentieth-century Liberal Quakerism.


Aliyah Shanti

Aliyah Shanti is the temporary assistant editor at Friends Journal. She lives in Philadelphia and is a member of Olympia (Wash.) Meeting.

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